Beginning just after Halloween each year flatbed trucks, some as long as fifty-three feet, show up on our interstates travelling south stacked high with plantation grown balsam fir trees encased in plastic netting. Each load is on the way to a Home Depot, Lowes or roadside stand in your neighborhood. This is your Christmas tree, born and raised in Nova Scotia, P.E.I. or Aroostook County in Maine.
Some families, in order to shop local, may stop in at tree lots set up by churches, Elks’ clubs or family-run stands to purchase a tree fresher than the ones from away. However, one can never be completely sure that these trees, too, did not come from a 1000 acre tree farm near Fort Kent.
The heartiest Christmas tree hunters, those who would never use the abbreviated Xmas when writing their holiday cards, are purists who look into the woods down the street from their houses and say “Why not? See the tree, cut the tree. God has grown them just for me.”
Dad was such a purist in 1953 when he was thirty-three young years old. Like past generations of his farming family, he was set on finding the best tree in the forest for our family’s holiday. I was six at the time. He felt I might be trusted to assist in his search. It was an adventure for me, a chance to get out of the house on a mild December afternoon, an opportunity for him to teach me how to get ready for Christmas in the traditional way. Yes, there were trees for sale in town at Benny’s, and the Common across from our Congregational Church was loaded with “fresh-cut”. No matter how easy it might have been to drive down and strap a 6’ tree in the trunk of his Bel Aire, the way to get a tree was to take to the woods, in this case the small pine grove between the camp road and Janet DeArruda’s house.
My job was to pull a wooden sled along the snow filled drainage gully which ran along side Plymouth Street. Dad walked ahead carrying a newly sharpened bow saw and a coil of rope. As we hiked along, several cars whizzed by, neighbors probably on their way to the church lot. Each driver honked and waved thinking how strongly traditional we were, how exemplary.
When we came to the unpaved camp road, I began to look intently at the trees which looked to be about the right height. He paid little attention when I would point to one or the other fir or pine which might be suitable. Instead, his gaze was upward toward the sky.
Stepping off the level road, he plunged into the heart of the grove leaving large boot prints in the six inches of crusted snow left from last week’s storm. As hard as I tried, my stride was not long enough to fit his sunken prints. I had to trudge along, nearly tripping as my small boots broke through the surface.
Deeper into the grove we went, until Dad stopped short, pointing directly up above his head. “There’s the one, Bobby,” he shouted to me. “That’s it up on the top of this fir tree. See it is nice and full because it has been growing in full sun.”
His lesson was clear. All the trees that were in my sight were very sparse and thin with few branches on which to hang ornaments, lights and tinsel. Tinsel was my favorite thing to put on the tree. You placed just one strand at a time. It took forever to get it just right. I like that. We wanted a full tree with lots of branches to hold the silver strands.
At his side, I stared up sky high to the top. It was so far to get there. Was he going to climb or was his reason for bringing me along to have me learn how to climb a tree? Climbing the big old maple where our swings hung was easy for me. Even Lynne was learning how to get up the lower branches. However, this was a very high, very skinny, very scary tree.
Fortunately, Dad took the risk off my shoulders. He put the coil of rope on one shoulder and undid his belt to wrap around the red saw so that it hung from his waist.
“Stand back there, Bobby. Move back with your sled to that clearing. After the tree comes down, you can load it on the sled. This will be a big surprise for your Mom and Lynne.”
A surprise? Hey, I liked that idea. I pictured myself dragging the Christmas tree back from the woods. Mommy and Lynne would be cheering. That would be great fun. I would be proud to bring it home.
Once I stepped back a safe distance, he began to hug the tree trunk and step up from branch to branch like he did on his big ladder when painting the barn. The lower branches were brown and brittle. Many broke under his weight. The going was slow, but he continued to climb until, reaching a point where there were green needles, he stopped to rest. I waved up at him. It seemed that he was up as high as our house.
I shouted to him, “Daddy, how high do you have to go? Can you see the house from there?”
He did not answer but instead climbed higher still until he shouted down “This is it! I’m going to cut right here and drop the tree down. Stay back there out of the way.”
My feet were getting cold, so I sat on the sled and waved back at him in agreement.
As the saw cut through the sappy trunk, saw dust flakes floated down toward me like fresh snow. The smell of the wood filled my nose. Such a sweet aroma.
“I’ve cut though,” he shouted as he pushed the top over to make it fall. However, the top hung up on other branches and would not get free. He grumbled as he kicked the butt this way and that. Then he took the rope from his shoulder and wrapped it around the girth of the cut tree. Down he moved a few feet. A pull on the rope moved the tree free and it fell. But only half way.
Again I heard him talking angrily to himself as he went lower, down to the level where it hung. Here he started kicking at it with one foot while he held tightly to the trunk. Just as it was freed to fall again, the branch on which Daddy stood snapped. He hung precariously by one hand. The rope fell. The saw fell. He fell.
Landing on his back in the crusty snow, he let out a howl that I had never heard before, stood up and brushed off the snow from his chinos. Though he seemed to be okay, he spent a few minutes rubbing his back and legs.
I ran to his side. “Are you alright, Daddy? You fell a long way. Did you hurt yourself?”
“No, I am okay. Just a bump or two.”
“When we get home with this tree, I do not want you to tell anyone that I fell. Do you understand? Just our secret.”
The idea of having a secret between me and him was a good idea. I liked that. So I agreed. We shook hands, just like I did with Kenny Fitzgerald when he and I rode our bikes too far down the street. A secret was a secret.
We loaded our Christmas tree on the sled. Dad showed my how to tie it in with the rope. Then back down the road we went triumphant with our prize. Dad limped a bit on the way back. As the doorway neared, he seemed to heal and stride as usual. When he called to Mom and she saw what we brought home from the woods, she smiled and gave him a big hug. Then she kissed me and inspected me head to foot to see if I was undamaged.
That was a great tree. Decorating her was a special event for me. I was able to explain to Mom how the branches were so full because it was grown in full sun. It took me almost an entire afternoon to hang the tinsel. What fun Dad and I had. However, I noticed that we never ever went out to the woods to hunt for a tree. The ones from the Church did just fine after that.
Walking South Waterford’s new Mill Trail with Leigh MacMillan Hayes on wondermyway.com.
16 September 2019
On Tuesday, July 2, 2019 Robert was interviewed by Librarian Jennifer Spofford of Fryeburg, Maine Public Library which was taped by Valley Vision Cable for broadcast in the North Conway/Fryeburg area. Although the main topic was his 2018 historical fiction The Spinster’s Hope Chest (Maine Authors Publishers), questions also covered the techniques of writing.
At Hollis Dunton’s Gem Mine
This excerpt from Robert’s novel in progress, Mining Chalk Pond, recently appeared in Maine’s Bethel Living Magazine.
Hollis Dunton of Newry stood at the top edge of a shallow, but wide, pit and made a big circular motion with both arms to catch the attention of all six guest prospectors. His mine was a wide expanse of boulders and broken rocks piled one on another in dangerous disarray. Around its perimeter lay fallen pines and stumps which had been pulled from the ground when he had blasted with dynamite. Beyond the edge of this wasteland were stands of first growth pine for which western Maine north of Bethel was known.
“Folks, this here pit is the Dunton family mine. Don’t look like much now, but the prospect for finding gemmy crystals in abundance is very, very good. Ask Mr. Hallett here what he found a week ago. Just ask anyone who has poked around in this pit. There are good pegmatite pockets sure to be found.